In celebration of Black History Month, Columbia Public Library — part of the Daniel Boone Regional Library System — hosted a webinar Wednesday about a lesser-known Black historical figure and Boone County native: Tom Bass, the Missouri Horseman.
According to the State Historical Society of Missouri, Bass was the first African American to ride in the American Royal Horse Show. He won numerous prizes on famous American saddle horses such as Miss Rex and Belle Beach.
Bass is also known for inventing the Bass bit, a mechanism designed to protect a horse’s mouth during training. His fame in mid-Missouri was such that in 2013, the dazzling equestrian showman had a road named after him in Columbia.
The webinar was moderated by Lauren Williams, adult and community services manager for Daniel Boone Regional Library, and featured Christal Bruner, the executive director of the Mexico-Audrain County Library District, as the main speaker.
“One of the things I love about (Bass) is that he rose above his situation, and he did it with dignity,” Bruner said.
Bass was born in a log cabin on the Bass farm in southern Boone County, Bruner said. His father, William Hayden Bass, was white, and his mother, Cornelia Gray, was a Black slave. Bass was raised by his maternal grandparents, Presley and Eliza Gray.
Bass’s love for horses came from both sides of the family. As a child, Bass was not allowed to ride the farm’s thoroughbred horses like other white Bass children, but he would outperform them on a mule.
When he left the Bass farm at around 19 years old, Bass worked for The Ringo, a hotel in Mexico, Missouri, where he rode a hack — a type of horse used for riding and pulling carriages — that brought arriving guests from trains. This is also where Bass met Joseph Potts, who gave him an opportunity to work at his stable.
When Bass was in his early 30s, he moved to Kansas City to open his own stable. That was where he invented the Bass bit, though he did not patent it, and eventually rode in the American Royal Horse Show.
Bruner’s presentation also included other information about Bass’ life, such as his marriage to Angie Jewell, the children he had before and after the marriage, his other family members, the popular horses he rode and trained, his most popular horse trick and so on.
“To me, the impact of his legacy is it shows that you can come from humble beginnings, someplace where people think that you might not even survive,” Bruner said, “and you (can) have a dream, and you can live your dream and be a part of your dream and help others along the way.”
Williams also said the Daniel Boone Regional Library’s goal in organizing this event was to shed light on the story of a less frequently recognized Black person.
“While the accomplishments of famous Black figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Harriet Tubman are extremely important, highlighting lesser-known Black figures who were a part of our local history and achieved success in spite of a racist system and society seems just as important,” Williams said. “Tom Bass is a figure we can be proud of as Missiourians, no matter our race.”